Book Review: “Learning to Speak” by Hilary Mantel

LEARNING TO SPEAK: stories, by Hilary Mantel


Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories, Learning to Talk, was first published in the UK in 2003 before garnering long overdue awards and international fame. It shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she spent 20 years writing: keen observation, vigilance against the stupidities of class and gender, an uncanny ability for child perspective, a door always open to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the whistling children’s voices brewed with wisdom and worldliness.

They are fictional stories. It says so on the back, and they have the structure and weight of a well-crafted short story. But they also weave parts of Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which deals with writing and chronic illness and infertility, but also growing up in a fractured, socially mobile family living in haunted houses in north-west England. These stories also deal with this experience, their narrators are children and teenagers at odds with their families, neighbors and schools, striving to decipher the unspoken, and often more hindered than helped by cleverness and curiosity.

We begin with echoes of Wordsworth and Thomas Hood, early prophets of the belief that the child is the man’s father: “I can no longer put the village where I was born from my mind, only the gyroscope of the big city Tentacles.” . … But we didn’t like the Mancunians.” The narrator doesn’t like Liam and his mother, not his missing father, their distraught and disruptive neighbors, not the teachers at school, and certainly not the children who sing anti-Catholic songs to Liam. “Gasoline ran in my veins; my fingers itched for triggers; Post offices were fortified behind my eyes.” The Catholic child’s anger takes the form of the troubles simmering misunderstood and half-acknowledged in the backdrop of northern British towns.

Each story goes around, playing on that unrecognized moment that changes a child’s life course: the killing of a lap dog, the experience of getting lost and finding oneself, the teen’s realization that loving adults can be dead wrong , importantly, daughters honor their mothers’ lives beyond motherhood. The key moments are historically accurate. In the cover story, the narrator looks back on years of language training after moving from a village school to the engine of social mobility, the English grammar school (an elite academic secondary school, free to anyone who could pass the entrance exam, although the exams inevitably favored the affluent ). In an exemplary use of the passive voice: “People thought I should be a lawyer. So I was sent to Miss Webster to learn how to speak properly.” Miss Webster has only one lung and her own accent is “precariously plush, Manchester with frosting”. Part of the enjoyment of reading these stories is the precision of the sets: the narrator “walked home through the dark streets, past other wool shops with baby clothes in the windows and the village deli with its range of white meats”. passing commuters “hurrying home to their transit lounges.” (A ‘lounge’ is a still declassified term for a sitting room, ‘through’ meaning the wall that once separated it from the now redundant dining room has been knocked down. England, lower middle class, post-war.)

In this more or less autobiographical time frame of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantel remains a historical novelist, that is, one who is always thinking about how politics, trends and events shape character, one who knows in every sentence that the political is something Personal and vice is reversed, someone inhabiting bodies shaped by the peculiarities of time and place. Part of her enduring brilliance lies in her attention to spirits and Mortgages, the light on the moors and Education policy of the 1980s, youthful self-discovery and irregular billing. These stories span worlds as big as her longest novels.


Sarah Moss’ latest novel is The Fell.


LEARN TO SPEAK, by Hilary Mantel | 161 p. | Heinrich Holt | $19.99

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